To ensure that only the best and safest food products reach consumers, processors constantly test and monitor contaminants in their inbound raw materials, which is not an easy feat. That’s where high-sensitivity analysis and accurate data comes in, allowing decision makers at the quality management level to effectively screen raw materials to determine their suitability for use, and to ensure product value, safety, and compliance.
Proper screening ensures that contaminants don’t exceed the maximum residue levels (MRLs) in the food product. Compliance risk aside, food processors want to put their brand name on only the highest quality food products. Brand reputation suffers when a product’s quality does not line up with the brand promise stamped on its packaging. For example, “all natural” or “100% organic” claims may invite further scrutiny if it’s revealed the food contains higher levels of contaminants. The impact can be far reaching, leading to media attention, a loss of consumer trust, recalls, and costly litigation.
A New Way to Test for Residue
Processors know that early detection of contaminants, such as glyphosate and mycotoxins, within inbound products saves time and money; however, such testing historically requires sending samples to a qualified lab for analysis by liquid chromatography (LC), sometimes coupled with advanced detection using mass spectrometry (MS). It can take days or even weeks for the test results to come back from the lab.
Imagine this all-too-common experience for food and agricultural facilities: A supplier pulls up with a truckload of grain. You collect and send a sample of the grain off to a lab to be screened for mycotoxin or pesticide residue. In the meantime, the grain sits in storage, risking cross-contamination with other raw materials. While waiting for laboratory results to arrive, you are left wondering how much time—and money—you could save if you could screen the raw materials for contaminants before the supplier unloads or leaves the premises?
The good news is that on-site testing technologies are available that can produce precise results in minutes, not days or weeks. The aim of both a laboratory-based analytical technique, such as high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), and a rapid test is the same: to measure whether a sample contains certain compounds. That’s where the similarities end. LC requires an accomplished laboratory technician to extract the target analyte from the sample and perform the analysis with an organic solvent according to a well-documented standard operating protocol (SOP).
Everyone is familiar with lateral test strips, the same format used with COVID-19 diagnostic test kits. Quantitative lateral flow strip tests can, in a matter of minutes, alert test users to the presence or absence of a specific target, whether it is SARS-CoV-2, mycotoxins, or glyphosate. Further, unlike LC, rapid test strips employ a water-based extraction method that any company owner, quality control professional, USDA or FDA licensed inspectors, or factory worker can perform on site. Administering on-site testing with lateral test strips is less costly and increasingly more sustainable given that samples never leave the site, which eliminates the packaging, shipping costs, and transportation emissions necessary to send samples to a lab for analysis.
The benefits of rapid on-site testing are that data-informed decisions can be made in the moment, allowing time for action and remediation. Processors can decide sooner whether to use a particular batch of raw materials or to source a substitute or replacement ingredient instead. Quality control managers can make specific plans for each raw material based on its quality. Operational efficiency improves and quality teams can have greater confidence in the quality of the inbound materials faster, eliminating the worry and uncertainty that attends untested inbound raw materials until they are confirmed clean. All of these are reasons to turn to rapid test methods at the food manufacturing facility.
Out of the Lab
Still, as with any new form of technology, some will remain hesitant or skeptical about implementing a new, unfamiliar way of testing. After all, results so important to their business and human safety cannot be left to chance.
Continuous learning is a proactive way to ensure ongoing success with any monitoring tool. Implementing rapid test methods outside of the lab is no exception. Annual retraining and simple procedure posters hung around the facility with QR codes that lead straight to full guides or step-by-step videos online help to improve the confidence of test operators and help to ensure consistent, accurate data collection. Scientist or not, the user’s confidence in their ability to perform the test will make all the difference in day-to-day work satisfaction, as well as obtaining sensitive, and accurate results.
On-site testing is a first line of defense in keeping low quality raw materials out of the facility and out of the global food chain. Access to rapid strip test screening kits has the potential to change the way raw materials are cultivated, harvested, and processed. Being able to customize a cultivation plan or harvest crops in a way that minimizes worker exposure to contaminants or microfungal toxins enables producers to make data-informed decisions that impact how they perform their jobs. Ultimately, the highest value is to protect consumers by ensuring food is free of contamination. Rapid test technologies mitigate risk much earlier in the value chain, which bolster preventive strategies and offers a more holistic approach to food safety.